English football’s lower league clubs are dying a slow death, but could soon be put out of their misery if television rights and wages continue to inflate.
Take a walk down Sheepfoot Lane, in the once Victorian industrial powerhouse but now dejected and run down town of Oldham in Greater Manchester, and one will come across a football club which, symbolic of the town itself, has been left behind by the passing of time.
You will see a main stand as old as they come and changing rooms not even spacious enough to fit the stars of the Premier League egos in. Welcome to Oldham Athletic – a club dangerously treading water in their desperate attempts to stay afloat while fighting the tide of television deals and wages which are spiralling out of control.
Home prices are mounting, crowds at home games are dwindling, concurrently so is the budget and therefore the team’s results on the pitch. Why? For me it all comes back to the astronomic amounts of money floating seamlessly around England’s top league, none of which finds its way down to clubs who need it most.
“Wondering how a club like Stoke City have recently signed the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri? Look no further”
This season saw the combined rights to broadcast Premier League football by BT Sport and Sky generate a whopping £10.4 billion, which has since been distributed among all the twenty Premier League clubs. Wondering how a club like Stoke City have recently signed the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri? Look no further.
Not only that, but the lucrative nature of such deals provides Premier League clubs with an abundance of money to spend on players’ wages – and that’s without taking into consideration the fact that most Premier League clubs are already owned by billionaires.
“Average crowds get lower as people simply aren’t willing to pay upwards of £20 to watch third and fourth tier football and I don’t blame them”
This means that getting up to the top division comes with an embarrassment of riches. The thought of reaching the Premier League is so economically bountiful that even Championship clubs are increasingly willing to spend a huge and potentially dangerous amount of money just to get there – some clubs have almost died trying.
It’s all well and good trying to get to the riches of the Premier League – if you’re well financially backed or attract crowds of over 20,000 at every home game. If you’re not, like Oldham Athletic, well, let’s just say the rich get richer and the poor get poorer as the gap widens to Grand Canyon-sized proportions.
Clubs such as Oldham are having to increase wage budgets just to keep even somewhere in the vicinity of the spending of those in the Championship, even League One in the case of Sheffield United and Bradford City.
How do you do that if you’re not owned by a gazillionaire? Increase match day ticket prices. What does that mean? Average crowds get lower as people simply aren’t willing to pay upwards of £20 to watch third and fourth tier football, and I don’t blame them.
Oldham is statistically the most deprived town in England, with people earning on average just £22,000 per annum – a lot of people simply don’t have £22 to spend on football. It’s a vicious cycle that is slowly driving a lot of lower league clubs into the abyss, with wages going up, but gate receipts plummeting.
“We can hope one day that the inflation of wages and ticket prices will be so large that the bubble will eventually burst, but the onus is firmly on the fans to take a stand”
In the year of 2016, Premier League clubs’ wage costs increased by 7% from the year before – they will almost certainly increase once again this year. Over the past twenty years, Premier League wages have increased by 1,500%. They are numbers which seem incomprehensible, but will continue to sky-rocket until action is taken.
The only solution is a universal wage-cap across Europe, especially with money currently being tossed around like confetti by clubs in the Chinese Super League.
Will it happen? You’d think sadly not. The FA, in spite of their rhetoric, care only for the riches of the Premier League while top European clubs such as Bayern Munich are happy to see the giants compete in a transnational league which would generate yet even more money.
We can hope one day that the inflation of wages and ticket prices will be so large that the bubble will eventually burst, but the onus is firmly on the fans to take a stand. No demand? No television deal – no endless pot of money to spend on wages.
Hereford United, a club which had been in existence for ninety years, suddenly became no longer in 2014. A club close to the hearts of a few thousand people wiped off the face of the earth by a mountain of unpaid debts. A club in liquidation, in extinction, is currently a rare phenomenon, but will become almost common place before long, it’s inevitable.
While those immersed in the white-collar bureaucracy of the Football Association do not appear to give a second though to the plight of lower league clubs, the jubilant celebrations of 900 Oldham fans at their side’s last gasp winner at Chesterfield recently show how important such clubs are to certain people.
While players have been paid late on a number of occasions over the last couple of years, genuine disaster almost struck in the summer of 2016 as Oldham faced their own winding up petition from the High Court, only to be saved by the skin of their teeth with the payment of owed taxes at the last moment.
But with television rights and wages continuing to mount, lower league clubs like Oldham hang ever loosely to the faintest of threads that is survival – one more push and they will surely drop into the abyss.